Answering Al-Ghazali Refutation of Jesus’ Divinity Part 3. Biblical Evidence for the Divinity of Christ.

Jesus prays to the Father in John 17:5, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” This verse testifies that Jesus shared the glory of God in his preexistence. However, al-Ghazali explains away the explicit teaching of the verse by imposing an unprecedented meaning to the word “glory”. He asserts that “the factual meaning is not intended, because in the fullness of the glory that was given to him is prophethood and messengership, and what entails from them in rank, the ascent to heaven, and his power to perform unprecedented miracles.” [Al-Radd, p.111]

Based on his Islamic presuppositions, Al-Ghazali rhetorically asserts that intelligent people would agree that there is an absolute ontological dichotomy between the Father and Christ, “Is it possible that divinity be bestowed when the impossibility of this is a matter upon which intelligent people have unanimously agreed?” However, he does not explain why the divinity of Christ is an “impossibility.” Neither does he offer any evidence to support his claim that it is “a matter upon which intelligent people have unanimously agreed?” His argument is merely an exercise in rationalizing away the plain meaning of the text and aligning them with the premise that the divinity of Christ is an impossibility.

Al-Ghazali’s abuse of the meaning of the word “glory” reminds me of the enigmatic conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s book, Through the Looking Glass.

…there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents –
‘Certainly,’ said Alice
‘And only ONE for birthday presents, you know.
There’s glory for you!’
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”’Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t–till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knockdown argument for you!”’
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master–that’s all.’

Humpty Dumpty must have been the muse behind Al-Ghazali, judging from the way he arrogates to himself the authority to impose alien meanings to the biblical terms like “glory” and “logos”. However, a biblically-informed hermeneutic would acknowledge that the Bible is its own linguistic master and seek to derive inductively the meaning of words from their immediate contexts. After all, a word does not have a meaning without a context; it only has possibilities of meaning. The meaning of a word derived from its immediate context is then corroborated by comparing with how the word is used elsewhere in the Bible, following the Reformation principle of “The Analogy of Scriptures” which says that the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself.

In contrast to al-Ghazali, we shall offer a biblically-informed analysis of the relationship between the glory of God and Christ given in John 17 and Philippians 2:5-11. The two passages shed light on Christ in his various stages of existence, that is, from his preexistence to his incarnation and eschatological glorification. A unified and consistent reading of the Bible would confirm that Christ is truly God and truly man.

Christ’s preexistence
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him…I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” (John 17:1-5)

The fundamental idea of “glory” (כָּבוֹד kābôd) in the Old Testament is that of weightiness. Hence, it is used of riches: Gen. 31:1; Is. 10:3; Hag. 2:7; Ps. 49:17; of success: Gen. 45:13; 1 Kings 3:13 and of beauty: Is. 35:2. Kābôd denotes the overwhelming objective reality which elicits respect and honor. God’s glory is the total qualities which make up his divine power and substance of his deity. The manifestation of God’s glory inspires awe and in Psa. 29:1; Josh. 7:19; Isa. 42:8; Isa. 48:11. Kābôd is not merely the manifestation of God in concrete form, it is identical with him. For this reason, God declares, “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” (Isaiah 42:8) Any reader who is familiar with the Old Testament would understand Christ to be claiming deity when he prays, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” (John 17:1-5)

The Apostle Paul expounds on what it means for the preexistent Christ to share the glory of God in Philippians 2:6-11.

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2: 6-11)

This passage begins with Christ in the heavenly realm who then descends to earth to assume a human life which ends with his crucifixion. It concludes with Christ ascending to heaven and receiving worship from the entire creation, worship which God reserves to himself alone (Isa. 45:23). Special attention must be given to two phrases which elaborate on the meaning of Christ’s glory and deity.

1) ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ, hos en morphē theou (who, though he was in the form of God). (Phil. 2: 6a)

The term μορφῇ (morphē) can refer either (a) to the external appearance/form or (2) the inner nature or essence. Obviously the form of God cannot be physical since God is spirit. J.B. Lightfoot’s seminal study on the meaning of morphē sets the usage of morphē within the Aristotelian philosophical tradition where morphē implies not the external accidents but the essential attributes. He contrasts morphē with schema which refers to external features and therefore is subject to change. To say Christ is in the morphē of God is to say he shares the nature and status of God. Lightfoot concludes,“μορφὴ is contrasted with the σχῆμα, as that which is intrinsic and essential with that which is accidental and outward. And the three clauses imply respectively the true divine nature of our Lord (μορφὴ Θεοῦ), the true human nature (μορφὴ δούλου), and the externals of the human nature (σχήματι ὡς ἄνθρωπος).”/1/

Some scholars hesitate to draw fine philosophical distinctions between morphē and schema. They note that Paul is writing from the Old Testament and Rabbinic traditions where the form of God is seen as the manifestation of the glory and presence of God.

“And Moses said, “This is the thing that the LORD commanded you to do, that the glory of the LORD may appear to you.” (Lev. 9:6)
“And the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people” (Lev. 9:23).
“Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” (Ezek. 1:28)

Paul also refers to the manifestation of glory of God when he encountered Christ: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6).

B.B. Warfield shares a general observation:

‘Form’ is a term which expresses the sum of those characterizing qualities which make a thing the precise thing that it is. Thus, the ‘form’ of a sword (in this case mostly matters of external configuration) is all that makes a given piece of metal specifically a sword, rather than, say, a spade. And ‘the form of God’ is the sum of the characteristics which make the being we call ‘God,’ specifically God, rather than some other being—an angel, say, or a man. When Our Lord is said to be in ‘the form of God,’ therefore, He is declared, in the most express manner possible, to be all that God is, to possess the whole fulness of attributes which make God God. /3/

Warfield’s conclusion is aptly captured by the NIV when it translates “in the form of God” as “in very nature God.”

Colin Hansen elaborates,

This evidence that both the OT and NT speak of the glory of God as the manifestation of God supports the definition of the form of God as the glory of God. The form of God in which the preincarnate Christ was clothed was the glory of God. In both the OT and NT, the glory of God is the manifestation of God’s power, the revelation of God’s nature in creation and redemption, and the radiance of God’s being…The glory of God expresses the being of God. The same close association of the glory of God and the being of God is found in the description of Christ in Hebrews: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact representation of his being” (Heb. 1:3). This union of the glory of God with the being of God informs our understanding of the first line of the hymn of Christ: existing in the form of God. If we conclude that the form of God means the glory of God and that the glory of God is intimately related with the being of God, then we will also conclude that the phrase existing in the form of God points to Christ’s being in very nature God (TNIV). /2/

Reginald Fuller concurs and notes that ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ, (in the form of God) is juxtaposed with εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ, (to be equal with God).

“in the form of God”, (v. 6) is to be interpreted…in the light of the parallel phrase in the immediate context, εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ, “to be equal with God”. To be in the “form” of God, means to exist in a state of equality with God. The term μορφῇ had by now lost its classical sense of “underlying reality” in contrast to outward appearance, and it means here “mode of existence”. The pre-existent One dwelt in an existence which was equal to that of God. /4/

Paul affirms the divinity of Christ elsewhere in 2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; 2:9. He is not alone in affirming the divinity of Christ. According to the Book of Hebrews, “Christ is the radiance (ἀπαύγασμα,apaugasma ) of the glory (δόξα, doxa) of God and the exact imprint of his nature (ὑποστάσεως, hypostaseōs), and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Heb. 1:3) It is significant that God’s nature (ὑπόστασις, hypostasis) is parallel to God’s glory (δόξα, doxa) and the two special qualities in God’s nature are both present in the Son as their radiance (ἀπαύγασμα, apaugasma ). Such a concentrated doctrinal affirmation of the divinity of Christ in one verse is unmatched in the Bible. Finally, the witness of Paul and the Book of Hebrews are corroborated by the witness of the Apostle John (John 1:1; 8:58; 10:30; 17:24). It appears that the New Testament witnesses feel free to adopt words with philosophical nuances (morphē and hypostasis) and theological nuances (doxa) to elucidate different aspects of the divinity of Christ.

Al-Ghazali has objected to the divinity of Jesus because Jesus displays human qualities. For example, Jesus confessed his ignorance about his future coming which is known only by God (Mark 13:32). More dramatically, Jesus cannot be divine since he felt abandoned by God on the cross (Mark 15:34). Al-Ghazali writes,

Such a difficulty is not resolved by mere possibilities without being proved with certain proofs, especially in a person whose humanity is affirmed in its requirements, necessities and characteristics such as a living being, speech, fatigue, hunger, thirst, sleep, gestation in the womb, and his suffering, according to their belief in the crucifixion, when he said, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ All of this is contrary to the divinity. All of this is contrary to the divinity. [Al-Radd, p 113]

However, Al-Ghazali’s argument fails to take into account the full evidence of the Bible:
First, the testimony of John who unambiguously affirms the preexistence of Christ. That is to say, the genuine humanity of Christ does not exhaustively describe the full being of Christ.
John 8:23 He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of his world.
John 3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
John 8:58 Before Abraham was, I am.
John 17: 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

Second, as Lightfoot has demonstrated in his careful study of the distinction between morphē and schema, Paul explains clearly in Philippians 2:5-11 that Christ possessed both divine nature and human nature in his incarnate state on earth. Al-Ghazali may disagree with Paul, but he is not entitled to explain away the clear teaching of Philippians 2:5-11.

2) οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ, ouch harpagmon hēgēsato to einai isa theō (he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped). (Phil. 2: 6b)

There has been controversy on how to translate this verse. Put literally, we have “Christ did not regard equality with God as a ἁρπαγμός (harpagmos).” The noun is related to a verb which means “snatch” or “seize.” However, there is no question of Christ’s trying to snatch or seize equality with God as he was already in very nature God. Neither is there any question of him trying to retain it by force. More help is available from Roy Hoover, whose journal article is widely regarded to have settle the translation controversy conclusively. Hoover explains,

it should be observed that this understanding of ἁρπαγμός statement carries with it the assumption that τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ, represents a status which belonged to the preexistent Christ”…[Harpagmos] refers “in every instance which I have examined this idiomatic expression refers to something already present and at one’s disposal. The question in such instances is not whether or not one possesses something, but whether or not one chooses to exploit something./5/

In short, Christ did not consider equality with God, something which he already possesses, an advantage to be exploited (harpagmos), but he chose instead to renounce the privilege by a supreme act of self-sacrifice.

The incarnate life
ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών, ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος· καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος, alla heauton ekenōsen morphēn doulou labōn, en homoiōmati anthrōpōn genomenos; kai schēmati heuretheis hōs anthrōpos (but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men). (Phil. 2:7)

The literal translation of this clause is “but he emptied himself.” Critics wonder how God could empty himself especially of his attributes. But J. B. Lightfoot captures the essential meaning, “he divested himself, not of His divine nature, for this was impossible, but ‘of the glories, the prerogatives of Deity.’”

Note that by “emptying” Christ did not become something less. The participle λαβών (labōn) shows that it is emptying by adding, that is, “by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”Christ did not discard his deity when assumed humanity, but retains his deity throughout his life on earth.  Precisely because he still was “in the form of God” with all its attending divine qualities that Christ is said to have been born, not man, but “in the likeness of man.” Christ in his human existence cloaked or veiled the form of God in the form of a slave. In the words of John Calvin, “Christ, indeed, could not renounce his divinity, but He kept it concealed for a time, that under the weakness of the flesh it might not be seen.”

Paul adds the phrase “by becoming obedient to the point of death” to stress that the humble life is not something that happened to Christ against his will. The one existing in the form of God and equal with God could not be humbled or humiliated by any person or power unless he willingly submitted to that humiliation as a fulfillment of the will of God. His glory is being in the form of God; his self-chosen humiliation is to conceal that glory in the form of a slave. Christ did this for a sacrificial and noble purpose. As Paul explains, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9).

It is clear by now that  the objection of al-Ghazali is untenable once we take into account the evidence from Phil. 2:5-11 which explains how Christ remains divine even as he displays human qualities in his earthly life, that is, Christ retained his divinity and veiled it by assuming humanity in his incarnate state.

Eschatological exaltation
The full and complementary perspectives on Christ taught by the Apostle John and the Apostle Paul together confirm that Christ is both divine and human – hence, the Christian historic Confession of faith, “Christ is truly God and truly man.” To be sure, the full glory of the form of God that Christ possesses was not fully manifested while he lived on earth, but the Bible teaches that the resurrection of Christ is a foretaste of the final manifestation of Christ’s glory at the End Times.

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil.2: 9-11)

This passage climatically announces the exaltation and glorification of Christ in the last few lines. The Old Testament stresses the uniqueness of the divine name LORD (Yahweh). “I am the LORD your God” (Isa. 41:13); “I am the LORD; that is my name” (Isa. 42:8); “I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior” (Isa. 43:11). In the exaltation of Christ, the unique divine name LORD is given to Christ. Philippians 2:10-11 cites Isaiah 45:25, “Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, ‘In the LORD alone are righteousness and strength.’” In place of the words “before me,” the passage inserts the phrase “in the name of Jesus.” That is to say, since Jesus bears the name of God (יְהוָ֣ה, κύριος), every knee should bow at the name of Jesus in fulfillment of the prophecy that every knee will bow before God. The universal worship which a unique divine prerogative that is given to Christ confirms his divinity.

The final line brings the trajectory of Christ to full circle. The exaltation of Christ brings glory to the Father. The passage may be focusing on the dramatic work of humiliation and exaltation achieved by Christ who is fully God and fully man. However, there is no competition between the glory of God and the glory of Christ. The glory and glorification of Christ is totally God-centred and God-glorifying.

Interim Assessment of al-Ghazali Ill-Informed Rejection of the Divinity of Christ
1) It is evident that al-Ghazali has adopted a reductionist reading of the Bible as he resorts to metaphorical interpretation to explain away the plain meaning of the biblical verses which point to the divinity of Christ.  Al-Ghazali acts on the basis of Islamic presuppositions which precludes any ontological relationship between God and Christ. He proceeds to exercise hermeneutical authority over the biblical texts and explains away metaphorically any verse which testifies to the divinity of Christ.

2) Al-Ghazali rejects the self-testimony of the Bible that the text itself is revealed by the one true God. To him, the Bible is a disparate collection of writings with no unified message since they are written by various unknown authors. Naturally, al-Ghazali ends up treating the relevant verses in isolation from one another. Since his reading is executed without a unified framework, it comes across as ad hoc and lacking cogency. He has no incentive to conduct a proper inductive reading of the relevant biblical texts and analyze how the biblical verses interpret one another (the hermeneutic of analogy of Scripture) and collectively affirm the divinity of Christ.

3) Al-Ghazali exercises the liberty to impose Islamic meanings to crucial biblical terms which preclude any possibility of God’s personal revelation in Christ. It is not surprising that he can only arrive at a portrait of a merely human Jesus. What comes to mind is the picture of al-Ghazali looking into the deep well of eisegesis and seeing a reflection that looks like the Christ of the Quran and the hadiths.

/1/ J.B. Lightfoot, Epistle to the Philippians (MacMillan, 1927), p. 133.
/2/ Colin Hansen, Letters to the Philippians (Eerdmans, 2009), pp. 137-138.
/3/ B.B. Warfield, The Person and Work of Christ (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1950), p. 39.
/4/ Reginald Fuller, Foundations of New Testament Christology (Charles Scribner, 1965), p. 208.
/5/ Roy Hoover, “The Harpagmos Enigma: A Philological Solution,” Harvard Theological Review (1971), p.118.

Related Posts:
A Fitting Refutation of the Divinity of Jesus (Al-Radd al-Jamil) by Al-Ghazali. Part 1
Answering Al-Ghazali Refutation of Jesus’ Divinity. Part 1: Evasion in the Name of Metaphor
Answering Al-Ghazali Refutation of Jesus’ Divinity. Part 2. Arbitrary Metaphorical Interpretation.
Is Zakir Naik is too Stubborn to Understand Jesus’ Claim to be God?
Answering al-Ghazali Refutation of Jesus’ Divinity Part 4. The Coherence of the Incarnation

** This series will be resumed after a short hiatus. Got to address other issues, got a job and a life outside blogging.

One thought on “Answering Al-Ghazali Refutation of Jesus’ Divinity Part 3. Biblical Evidence for the Divinity of Christ.”

  1. Your quotation of John 17:5 at the beginning of this helpful article reminds the Bible reader that Jesus, the Son of God, is here asking God the Father to glorify God the Son as he advances steadily toward his death. The importance of the connection between the glory of Jesus in his willing, obedient, redeeming death cannot be overstated. You refer to this when you also quote from Philippians 2:8, that Jesus became obedient to death. But where Islam is concerned, the connection needs to be spotlighted. The “therefore” of exaltation in Phil 2:9 comes immediately after “death on a cross.” One must ask to what extent the Islamic denial of the death of Jesus on the cross relates to the Islamic denial of his divine glory. I am glad to know that you plan to resume this important series.

    A solid updated study of the glory of Jesus in the Bible can be found in “Gospel of Glory: Major themes in Johannine theology” by Richard Bauckham (Baker Academic 2015). I have also been blessed in recent days to read the manuscript of Tony Costa’s “Early Christian Creeds and Hymns,” which includes a close study of Phil 2:6-11 among the key passages affirming the deity of Jesus in the New Testament. Such writing encourages us and resources us to continue to proactively proclaim the redemptive death and divine glory of Jesus in Muslim contexts.

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